Climate Change, California and The Smart Grid

Published: Mon 20 Jan 2014
A blog entry by Christine Hertzog

Contributed by:

Christine Hertzog
Managing Director
Smart Grid Library

Christine Hertzog's Blog

The California Energy Commission (CEC) publishes an Integrated Energy Policy Report (IEPR - pronounced eye-per) every two years, and the 2013 IEPR was just approved this past week.

This report serves many information purposes, such as assessing “major energy trends and issues facing the state’s electricity, natural gas, and transportation fuel sectors” and delivering policy recommendations that “ensure reliable, secure, and diverse energy supplies.” There’s equal emphasis in the IEPR to conserve resources and protect the environment, but this two-part discussion focuses on the IEPR’s energy trends and issues, and how the Smart Grid can help resolve some of the serious challenges facing California.

Let’s look at two climate change impacts – temperature and precipitation.

From a temperature perspective, the IEPR anticipates that as the thermometer rises, so does the demand for electricity to run AC. San Francisco Peninsula communities that never had a need for AC will install a couple million units to deal with summer temperatures formerly confined to the Central Valley. PG&E and municipal utilities in Northern California will notice impacts in seasonal demand for electricity in both the duration of heat waves and peak apexes during the hottest times of day. In the southern part of the state, the demand will also grow as AC units work harder to offset hotter days. At the same time, increased temperatures decrease power plant efficiencies, whether the plant generates electricity from natural gas, solar thermal, nuclear, or geothermal. Their cooling processes are also negatively impacted by heat waves. Increased temperatures also impact transmission lines – reducing their efficiency and creating line sags that can trigger service disruptions.

Then there’s precipitation. Governor Jerry Brown just announced a drought emergency for the state. A significant portion of California’s water storage system relies on the Sierra Mountains snowpack, which is frighteningly low this winter. This snowpack supplies most of the water sourced within the state, and hydropower derived from it supplies about 15% of the state’s homegrown electricity. A hotter climate means snowfall becomes rainfall, and it is no longer freely stored as snow that obligingly melts as temperatures rise. It may not be as reliably scheduled for generation of hydro power as snowfalls shift to rainfalls. We may also receive less precipitation as a result of climate change – that’s a big unknown right now.

One thing is certain. A hotter climate will require more water for agriculture – a $45 billion economy in California - to sustain crops. And whether it is water for industrial, commercial, agricultural, or residential uses, what doesn’t fall from the skies will require electricity to pump it, transport it, desalinate it, or treat it. California will be hotter and drier as a result of climate change. That combination poses another serious threat to the state’s transmission lines infrastructure and a continued reliance on centralized generation. Like many Western states, California has a fire season. In the past, that fire season was confined to summer months. In a drought situation, those fires can occur any time of year – as evidenced by fires that broke out this January. Fires damage and destroy transmission lines, the brittle infrastructure that transports power within and between states. Dense smoke from wildfires can also damage lines. There are no plans to put sprinkler systems on transmission towers, so wildfire threats to this critical infrastructure cannot be resolved.

These scenarios are identified in a number of reports issued by California state agencies, including CAISO (California Independent System Operator) and the CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission). There are some good actions underway to help address these issues – including a continuing emphasis on energy efficiency and demand response policies and programs. But California will have to look beyond its existing energy policy and aggressively apply Smart Grid technologies and policies to water. That discussion will continue next week.